As we've noted a few times, one of the biggest obstacles to getting real next-generation broadband networks deployed in the United States is the protectionist broadband laws large ISPs have written and lobbied for nineteen states
. These laws erode local rights by prohibiting or hindering towns and cities from building their own broadband networks (or in some cases even partnering with a private company) -- even in cases where nobody else will.
In a sane world, most of us would normally agree that letting AT&T or Comcast write self-serving state law that tramples citizen rights is bad for everyone. But like so many technology issues in the United states (like net neutrality), municipal broadband has somehow fallen victim to partisan nitwit disease, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. That shouldn't be the case; most municipal broadband networks are actually voted on and built in Conservative leaning areas
(since it's more rural areas that tend to have less competition and need the most help). As with net neutrality, if you actually sit people down and talk to them
most people actually tend to agree. "Why yes, I would
prefer it if my rights weren't curtailed by a Comcast lawyer, thank you very much."
But instead of acknowledging we agree and moving forward to carve out the best solution possible, money in politics has polluted the discourse well. As a result, we all get to live in a badly-written dystopian novel, where giant companies write the law, and loyal politicians like Martha Blackburn defend protectionism by pretending they're only really concerned about the little guy
I've written about this issue for fifteen years, and for most of that time it wasn't a sexy enough of a subject to get the attention of technology news outlets, much less the mainstream press. As such, it was relatively easy for carrier lobbyists to get these laws passed. In the last few years, however, things have been changing; efforts like Google Fiber and municipal broadband builds in places like Lafayette, Louisiana, Wilson, North Carolina, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, have shown a bright spotlight on the lack of competition and the precise reasons why. As such, protecting broadband duopolies through greased-palm legislation has gotten a tiny bit
Yet we still can't seem to cure partisan nitwit disease. Take for example, the recently re-introduced by Cory Booker Community Broadband Act
(pdf). A rehash of truly bipartisan efforts attempted in both 2005 and 2007, the bill has been brought out and dusted off to try and kill off these awful state laws. The proposal's wording is clear:
"No statute, regulation, or other legal requirement of a State or local government may prohibit, or have the effect of prohibiting or substantially inhibiting, any public provider from providing telecommunications service or advanced telecommunications capability or services to any person or any public or private entity."
Of course the law is most likely going nowhere, because giant ISPs have, like most companies, poured gasoline and campaign cash on partisan divisions to ensure partisan gridlock. As such, Republicans will mindlessly fight the measure under the pretense of just being super concerned about states' rights and the poor American taxpayer.
The point may be moot. On February 26 (the same day it's slated to vote on net neutrality), the FCC will vote to consider pre-empting the restrictive provisions in these state laws under its Congressional authority to ensure broadband is deployed in a "reasonable and timely basis."
That's the first time in fifteen years the FCC could be bothered to even look at this relatively common sense issue, much less engage it on the policy front. That suggests progress -- even if we're still looking for a cure to the pandemic that is partisan nitwit disease.